Umami—pleasant savoriness. This is my favorite of the five flavors, with salty a close runner-up. I strive for that earthy, vaguely meaty, umami deliciousness when I cook. It’s that quality that makes you stop involuntarily as you stroll down the street, and stand sniffing the fragrant air outside a restaurant, suddenly ravenous. It’s that subtle aroma that hits the palate before a bite of food even touches your tongue. It is present in slowly braised meats, aged cheese, and in miso soup.
There are some stand-by ingredients that I frequently use to kick up the umami in a recipe—including mushrooms, parmesan, anchovies, tomato paste, and fish sauce. But a while ago, I start seeing references to Umami Paste on various food blogs. After a little investigation, I found that that Taste #5 Umami Paste was a product meant to be a simple way to up the umami factor in recipes. Clever? Definitely! Necessary—well, no. But I was intrigued enough to order several tubes and distribute them to some of my foodie friends. And guess what is in it? Tomato paste, garlic, anchovy paste, black olives, balsamic vinegar, mushrooms, parmesan, olive oil…a veritable who’s who of umami ingredients.
Now, any half-way competent home cook can produce a savory dish without an assist from a tube. But sometimes having a cheat up your sleeve is not a bad thing. I’ve found that Umami Paste is the perfect additive to the ubiquitous weeknight penne that I produce from odds and ends. Last week’s dish included mushrooms, chunks of sausage, and fresh asparagus. A little garlic, salt, pepper, and pasta water usually complete the sauce. But a squirt of Umami Paste, well blended, is an effortless refinement, deepening the flavors and pulling the dish together.
This pasta should be made with whatever produce and protein you find in your refrigerator. Start with this recipe as a template and improvise. Buying ingredients specifically for this recipe defeats the purpose, which is to use up what you have on hand. Pull out whatever leftover seafood, roasted chicken, sausage, or tofu cubes you have, and a couple of handfuls of vegetables—greens, mushrooms, zucchini, peppers, cauliflower—anything will work.
- 1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
- 8 oz mushrooms, sliced
- 8 oz penne or other small pasta
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 8 oz sausage, cut into chunks (I used Toulouse this time)
- 1/4 cup chopped onion
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- salt and pepper
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
- reserved pasta water
- (optional) a squirt of Taste #5 Umami Paste
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Cook the asparagus for 1-2 minutes, then skim from water and set aside. Return the water to a boil and cook pasta according to package directions.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add the sausage and cook until browned. Add your vegetables and garlic, and sauté until crisp-tender, just a few minutes, adding the asparagus last.
Strain the penne, reserving one cup of the cooking water.
Add pasta to skillet and toss all ingredients, adding parmesan and enough reserved cooking water to create a light sauce. Add salt, pepper, and Umami paste if using, to taste.